Generation Y has had its day in the spotlight.
The light was quite bright — resulting in phrases such as “hipster” and “millennial,” the latter of which has given rise to more memes, marketing suggestions (because that generation changed the way the game is played), and verbose blog posts either refuting or condoning prevailing assumptions.
But alas, the millennials are aging and a new generation is on the rise.
Whether this group of those now in their twenties and younger will garner the same amount of attention is yet to be determined, but this much seems true — Generation Z is on the scene…
…and we might want to pay attention to the world these young’uns are midwiving forth.
Part One — The Generation Game
Full disclosure, I am a member of Generation Y. My generation saw the advent of the internet and watched the evolution from dial-up to fiber optics. We are a unique bunch and, I believe, our rampant focus (and often, critiques) are deserved. Folks of previous generations just didn’t know what to do with us. Most of ‘us’ still don’t know what to do with us.
Which is why a caveat is necessary — generational cohorts are tools, not an exact science. They are not defining characteristics like a stamp placed on everyone born during a certain set of years. They are placeholders, generalizations to help draw awareness among a swath of individuals. There will always be particulars that don’t align with the general; there are always contexts that act as outliers to the norm.
Do I embody everything that comes with the baggage-loaded title of “Millennial”? No. Have I been shaped by a world that has made some of those descriptive tendencies normal? Of course.
But as a product of Generation Y, I am noticing some generalizations about Generation Z.
I do not want to attach a moral value to any of these tendencies and I also do not want to whitewash everyone younger than 22 (born before 1997). I am also not an authority on “kids these days” or the sociology behind generational categories. I do, however, work with folks in this given age range frequently. One of my side gigs involves coaching high school football and interacting with individuals in college and high school in mentor-like relationships. While, at the time of this writing, I am 29 years old and not that far removed from this new generation, even to me, the differences appear to be stark.
A conclusion that seems appropriate.
Because the way these generational cohorts are defined is often based on who their parents are. Here’s a synopsis.
The Greatest Generation (or Traditionalists) — 1945 and before (ages 74+)
Boomers — 1946–1964 (ages 55–73) — note: this is sometimes broken down into Boomers I & Boomers II based on their birth relative to the Vietnam War.
Generation X — 1965–1984 (ages 54–35)
Generation Y (Millennials) — 1984–1996 (ages 34–23) — though some run Millennials all the way to 2000 or later.
Generation Z (iGen) — 1997 and later.
Thus, the Greatest Generation gave birth to Generation X. Boomers gave birth to Generation Y. Generation X gave birth to Generation Z. And generation Y gave birth to student debt and avocado toast.
Moving on, if generational cohorts are not an exact science, you can disregard a lot of the dates. Various authorities date them differently.
I’m also not credited with the authority to properly articulate the characteristics of each generation. Pew Research has some great material and The Atlantic has an article from 2014 that provides such information.
What I do find interesting is that each generation inherits the world of their parents (i.e., two generations previously) and they also react against the world embodied by the generation immediately before them.
Millennials are a good example — a product of the grandiose, newfound, iconoclastic world of Boomers that gave rise to the modern iteration of America while watching Generation X’ers in their jaded, pragmatic scaling of a world that was just experiencing fast-paced technology. Each generation seems to adapt to their parents while evolving those traits. They then rebel against their older peers (who they just don’t want to be like).
Enough of that descriptive attempt to over-generalize an entire generation of people and fit them into neat categories.
Except, Generation Z.
I’m about to do that with Generation Z.
Though anecdotally, of course.
Because this is what we (might) see with those folks born in approximately 1997 and later.
Part Two — The Generation Z Cocktail
They were practically born with cell phones in their hands and WiFi available in the reach of their placid crawling (please note my exaggerated sarcasm, it will remain through the following discourse). As a result, one of the characteristics we (might) see:
Generation Z (might) have an assumed relationship with our modern versions of technology. Not just ‘having’ technology, but assuming that it should be available and accessible in ever more increasing forms.
Not only do Generation Z’ers probably not remember a time without smartphones and social media, but they are also accustomed to a very efficient form of technology.
Generation Z (might) have an expectation, then, that an item’s functionality should be great.
They also (along with, apparently, most generations) don’t like Generation Y. They watched their older peers get all meaningful and existential and try to save the world with their righteous sayings and pathos-driven rhetoric. All indicators suggest they are now reacting against it. They watched a generation do a lot of talking while being categorized as lazy and unproductive.
Generation Z (might) not be as socially nuanced and, more likely, will be concerned with ‘doing’ than with ‘talking’.
Generation Z (might) be more likely to be entrepreneurs and value work — much like what they saw their parents and grandparents/great-grandparents do. Giving back and purpose will be equated with jobs and productivity.
Then you have the globalized world that is now normal. They grew up in a world where you could be anywhere on Earth in a day or communicate (even via video) with someone on the other side of the world in an instant. The diversity of ideas, cultures, and people was inherited. Multi-cultural interactions and social knowledge are assumed. They do not seem to stand in awe of it or find it as something worth elevating — it’s just how things are.
Generation Z (might) engage with diversity in a more assumed manner. This could be good — that diversity is just accepted as a result of being alive. It could also go awry in that they might not understand the suffering-filled history that our diverse world is now a result of.
What did they inherit from their parents? Well, if Generation X was the Silent Generation, pursuing a safe, reliable experience that was slightly jaded while also replacing optimism with pragmatism (thanks to the Boomers) this new generation grew up with a hefty form of protection. They were raised in the post 9/11 world by a generation that sought to firmly protect their kids.
Generation Z (might) tend to be more isolated than Millennials — a contained sort of rebellion that isn’t as rambunctious as Millennials and that takes on a devious attempt to break through walls will result.
Generation Z (might) prioritize privacy — especially after watching how over-posting on social media caused a lot of problems for the previous generation. Sitting back and intentionally breaking into the world may be more likely than just assuming they can do whatever they want.
Despite all of this, there are two larger possibilities that deserve more attention.
Because these are the traits I’ve mostly noticed about Generation Z.
Part Three — This Wisdom is Different
If you get into a discussion with one of these young’uns, you may have yourself a dilemma.
Sure, you went to school, achieved degrees, spent countless hours researching & listening & reading, and may have the weathered wisdom of experiencing decades of life on earth.
But they have an electronic device, WiFi (or 5G), and a working knowledge of how to look up anything on Google, Wikipedia, or Twitter in an instant. It’s like going against a debate team that has every piece of information laid out on the table in front of them.
You can make a comment about a political decision and they can come back with an instantaneous refutation comprised of the details you missed and five incongruent interpretations that shows you are wrong.
It is easy to feel dauntingly overwhelmed by how much more they know than you!
Because they have unparalleled access to information — and they know how to get their hands on that information.
They also, as a generalization, like to be right — and may even whisp up information just to (try) and put you in your place.
But here’s the thing about this form of “wisdom.”
It is limited.
There is a reason that before you learn calculus, you learn addition. Can you look up a webpage that explains a specific advanced trigonometry equation and then posture up your intellect that you know more than the person that didn’t happen to look at that webpage in that specific moment?
It doesn’t mean you are good at math.
And it certainly doesn’t equate to understanding math.
But alas, this is the dilemma we will continue to face — the deep, aged, weathered wisdom of experience that has taken and owned information with their being versus being able to look up facts without diving deeper into them. The difference here is access, not wisdom. You have to have some basic intellect to research something, even less to look it up on a smartphone, but it doesn’t make you smart.
Will we be able to interact with a generation that proposes this form of wisdom as the paragon of life?
And will we be able to show the value of moving information from your head to your hands — of owning and experiencing the world in a way that you actually know it?
You see, I am not the best quarterback coach in the world. I often look up tips, techniques, drills, and information online from those who have put in the hard work and are willing to share it. I have, however, put in hours and hours that have built over 19 years of actually engaging with the information. Someone might be able to look up how to throw a football online and give me the abstract definition. They may even be right (maybe) if they happened to stumble across a veritable source (because anyone can post online or write an article about Generation Z). I, however, can tell them if the information they looked up on YouTube is right. But further, I can look at how an individual holds a football and nuance their fingers according to the shape of their hand and the context of their body’s frame to do it right.
There are some things you can’t look up online.
There are some things that are better when fermented over time; that have the credibility of being able to take information and put it into a contextual and actualized form.
You can recite basic cooking techniques all day — it is a whole different experience to actually be able to cook in a given moment.
Can we blame this generation?
We shouldn’t. If we are acknowledging that they were handed a particular world and that their manifestation of reality is based on what came from their parents (Generation X) and what they didn’t like about their older peers (Generation Y…who seemed to be illogical and disrespected the “facts”), then this is the world that we’ve created. Which is, again, not something with a moral value.
Is a natural effect of social media that we would crave instantaneous information?
Has our world of advertising created a norm of getting bite-sized, unnuanced information thrown at us constantly?
Has our unmitigated access to information created a comfort that allows us to be detached from being formed, over time, with weathered wisdom?
I guess. But the real question is what do we do?
We prioritize the value of rooting ourselves in the process of becoming; of owning addition before we mindlessly recite a calculus answer without knowing what makes it correct.
We need to continue to emphasize the importance, even the value, of learning deeply and of producing a person that has the information in their bones and not just in the head of the internet.
Part Four — Tribalism Via Confirmation Bias
Yes, Millennials are a bit wishy-washy. If you grew up watching them, how would you respond?
Take a stand.
Possibly even an unforeseen, overly rigid one.
Because when you pair the access to information with the desire to have your identity rooted in something, you run the risk of an isolated identity.
Let’s use streaming services as an example — what do you want to watch? Well, 10 years ago, you either paid for HBO or you checked to see what was on the television. Today, pick your flavor — of which there are an infinite number of options. You don’t have to wait for cable because you are in control of what you decide to watch. So what will you watch? The exact thing that you want to watch!
I introduce you to “The Other Side of Identity Politics.”
Which is a phrase that seems particularly apt to this generation — the undoing of identity politics. The problem is that we’ve just traded the Democrat / Republican identity politics for another kind. We are still finding popular and famous voices who’ve developed a platform whom we will receive our given perspective from and base our identity after. And now that we can selectively choose that information (and, potentially, only that information), we enter into an echo chamber to constantly add to our decided position.
The further we go into those positions, the more narrow the rabbit hole — because we can enhance our desire for rigidity through our ability to select.
Thus, we end up with a tribalism through confirmation bias.
What do we do?
Well, the concept of mapmaking could be a start. I find myself constantly challenging Generation Z folks to explore a concept more than what they profusely belt out in shallow conversations or snips on Twitter.
When we can narrowly select only what we want to hear or see or learn and when we have already decided what we want to hear or see or learn, we aren’t too likely to traverse uncharted territory to add to our worldview maps — we will just keep following the trailheads developed by the voices we’ve determined we like.
(See “Mapmaking Vs. Arguing”)
There is also something to be said for the good old conversation — and not just because of the anti-technology colloquiums that yell about, “Not being face to face anymore” — but because you can’t select your information intake when in a conversation with another human being. You are forced to see what you might not have looked for on your own. Conversation is capable of expanding a tribe to the point that it doesn’t feel like a tribe anymore.
The good news is that, because we have so much information, the capability of social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Medium make possible the potential to see more of the world than was possible just 10 years ago. We shouldn’t condemn these modes of learning, but we should put them in their proper place — as facilitators of growth as opposed to solidifiers of our confirmation biased tribes.
Imagine what would happen if a group of people consistently interacted in a healthy investment of the others, asking to show each other more of the world? And what if those people were folks who have seen WWII or grew up during Vietnam or experienced the 2008 recession? What if they had a variety of perspectives to add to the communal map on politics, economics, and culture?
I think we’d have better individuals with better relationships in better communities building a better world.
And the potential dangers of Generation Z would become beautiful benefits to shape fellow generations to come.
Which is what I actually hope we (might) see with Generation Z.